Collaboration: Deviation

From the Series: Collaboration

Photo by diannehope14.

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
—Lilla Watson

What are the tensions inherent in ethnographic collaboration, particularly efforts that aim to engage questions of inequality and social justice? As Dana-Aín Davis and Michal Osterweil point out, muddling through collaboration in our ethnographic research and writing projects is fraught and challenging. In my contribution to this Correspondences session, I want to deviate a bit from professional anthropology and reflect on collaboration in the world of design. I also want to reflect on the ways that collaboration requires change from all involved.

For the past five years, I have worked at a design school where critical questions about justice and inequality are viewed as nonissues. It’s maddening. Design is a field that, on the whole, is client-oriented and serves industry; questioning the system is not on the agenda. At the same time, like so much ethnography, design aspires to change the world, and designers do this by making things that solve problems. If the problem with ethnography is that we are all about the problem and not about the solution, design is quite the reverse. The verve for solving problems can stand in the way of addressing the complex systems that create the problem in the first place.

A classic example is water filters, which seem constantly to be invented by energetic young designers after a life-changing visit to rural Africa. Take the case of LifeStraw. The LifeStraw solution, like so much design, imagines that a product is enough to address a problem that arises from massive failures of the nation-state and its infrastructure, urban-rural inequalities, social isolation, and so on (Redfield 2012). Under these circumstances, even efforts at co-design and collaboration inevitably look more like the photos in the White Savior Barbie Instagram feed than the kind of walking together envisioned in the epigraph above.

How can we challenge students who are not studying anthropology, both inside and outside design, to engage with the complexities of collaboration as ethnographic practice? How can we collaborate with those beyond our discipline, encouraging them to engage deeply and to address the hard questions of ethics, power, and global inequality? Finally, how can collaboration lead to change not just for “them,” but also for those of “us” who claim ethnographic expertise and authenticity—that is, how does collaboration not only inform, but transform us as anthropologists?

For me, answering these questions has involved finding new ways for my students to conduct community-based research, preferably in settings and among people unfamiliar to them. In one project, students worked with homeless youth in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. I asked my students to research design responses to homelessness and to critique them.

Noting that design has produced a staggering array of tents and tentlike “solutions,” we rejected this deficit-based approach not least because in focusing only on the lack of a place to sleep, solutions like these ignore the systems that produce homelessness in the first place. Instead, I asked students to identify and engage with the competencies and capacities of homeless youth, rather than focusing on what they did not have. This entailed devising ways to meaningfully collaborate with people who are not the usual collaborators in design projects: gangbangers, transsexuals, and drug users. Students used cameras not for putatively objective documentation, but as intermediaries for the playful formation of relationships, confronting the complexities of establishing trust and communication while managing their own stereotypes and expectations (see Chin et al. 2015).

In projects like this, my students have demonstrated to me the ways in which technology can go well beyond the off-the-shelf uses to which most of us anthropologists put our cameras, recorders, and devices. One excellent example is Tina Zeng’s MFA project, a DIY audio mixer and preamplifier called weDub, that was made and deployed in collaboration with youth from a Kampala slum. Other scholars, such as Anne Galloway (2013) and Nicola Bidwell (2016), have dived into experimenting with how making bespoke technologies—both real and imagined—can expand ethnographic practices and products.

As Margot Weiss astutely hinted in her introduction, collaboration carries with it more than a whiff of betrayal. As I have seen the innovative ways that technology can be deployed, I have had to loosen my own rigidity about what good fieldwork looks like. This often moves me in directions that seem, at first glance, not very ethnographic in form or in spirit. Although anthropologists have devoted new attention to design in recent years (Rabinow et al. 2008; Escobar 2011; Murphy and Marcus 2013), anthropology’s take on design tends to give short shrift to what, for designers, is essential: its commitment to materiality. Designers make things much more than they write—and we can learn from that.

This is a line of inquiry that I have been pursuing through a project that I call the Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology, a wide-ranging experiment with embodying technologies of ethnographic information-gathering. This project takes seriously the design notion of “thinking through making,” embedding sensors, cameras, and other doodads in full-body lab suits to performatively explore questions of what it means to be an ethnographer in the field and what role technology can and should play. When you have a microphone embedded in your hand, what does it mean to record an interview?

When I first arrived at Art Center as a new faculty member, I moaned loudly and often about the need to teach designers what I called “real ethnography,” in contrast to what I characterized as the “fake ethnography” typically deployed in the service of design. Yet I have learned that this question of real and fake is overly simplified. My role, I am beginning to realize, is not to help the designers with whom I work to become proper ethnographers; rather, my task is to learn to walk with them and, increasingly, to do ethnography in designerly ways. For their part, learning to travel the terrain of fieldwork continues to be a productive challenge, one that might offer a productive deviation away from providing solutions and into more interesting territories. In the process, all of us move toward a space where our liberation is on the horizon.


Bidwell, Nicola J. 2016. “Moving the Center to Design Social Media in Rural Africa.AI and Society 31, no. 1: 51–77.

Chin, Elizabeth, Morgan Marzec, Cayla Macrae, and Tina Zeng. 2015. “Caminemos Juntos: Collaboration, Ethnography, and Design in Northeast Los Angeles.” In Participatory and Visual and Digital Research in Action, edited by Aline Gubrium, Krista Harper, and Marty Otañez, 243–57. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.

Escobar, Arturo. 2011. “Sustainability: Design for the Pluriverse.” Development 54, no. 2: 137–40.

Galloway, Anne. 2013. “Emergent Media Technologies, Speculation, Expectation, and Human/Nonhuman Relations.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 57, no. 1: 53–65.

Murphy, Keith M., and George E. Marcus. 2013. “Epilogue: Ethnography and Design, Ethnography in Design . . . Ethnography by Design.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 251–68.

Rabinow, Paul, George E. Marcus, James D. Faubion, and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Redfield, Peter. 2012. “Bioexpectations: Life Technologies as Humanitarian Goods.” Public Culture 24, no. 1: 157–84.